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The Week Ahead

EPA's Power Plant Rules Drive Review Of Air Act, States Weigh Groundwater Protections

Posted: September 23, 2013

EPA's just-released new source performance standards for power plants will be the focus of several events this week, including a seminar on how EPA can overcome limits in its Clean Air Act powers. State regulators are meeting to consider the latest data on groundwater depletion and other issues just as EPA is weighing easing its policy requiring cleanup of contaminated groundwater.

Climate Change

EPA's just-proposed greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations for new power plants -- which the agency unveiled Sept. 20 -- are again prompting calls for Congress to step in due to concerns that EPA's general Clean Air Act authority is inadequate to regulate GHGs.

The utility of EPA's authority is the subject of a Sept. 26 workshop presented by Dallas Burtraw of Resources For the Future (RFF). Burtraw notes that while the U.S. is already meeting GHG emissions goals set by Democratic legislation that failed to make it out of Congress in 2010, the air law does not allow EPA to provide the “generous” emissions offsets that the legislation would have provided to ease compliance costs.

RFF says the challenge issued by President Obama to EPA is to “develop an approach that achieves substantial emissions reductions using flexible, market-based approaches.”

The RFF event is likely to highlight the group's prior research that identified “a regulatory pathway that was likely to be legal and provide modest emissions reductions at modest cost from the power sector.” Recent and ongoing research highlights the program design issues that will determine whether this can occur.

The agency's rules are also driving discussions over new source performance standards (NSPS) for existing plants that the agency is slated to propose next June.

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and that National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), for example, is holding the first workshop in a three-part series on Sept. 25, that will provide “an overview of the context, precedent and contours of future GHG regulation of existing power plants.” Panelists, including Heather Zichal, the White House climate and energy advisor, and Joe Goffman, EPA's climate advisor, will share their views on the potential form, contents and challenges of the upcoming rules.

Some of the BPC/NARUC panelists previewed their initial thoughts on the NSPS regulations at a Sept. 17 Environmental Law Institute (ELI) event in Washington, DC. For example, David Doniger, climate and energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called on EPA to use the upcoming rule to revoke authority to grant plant-specific exemptions authorized under an almost 40-year-old NSPS regulations.

State regulators, who are expected to play a significantly greater role in implementing EPA rules for existing sources than the new source rules, will also be weighing in at the BPC/NARUC event. State officials have begun preparing for the rules and last week began an effort to craft principles for EPA to consider as it crafts the rules. While the regulators were unable to agree on a resolution codifying the principles at the annual meeting of the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), they are revising the document and are expected to approve it shortly.

EPA's climate rules are also expected to be discussed at the World Energy Engineering Conference slated to be held in Washington, DC, Sept. 24-26. Keynote speakers include Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance To Save Energy and others.

And the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is slated to release Sept. 24 a long-awaited report on the GHG and other impacts of integrating renewable electricity onto the grid. According to an NREL announcement, the report will show that “the negative emission and cost impacts of cycling on fossil-fueled power plants in the Western U.S. is relatively small (which counters the findings of other studies that argue emissions and costs are increased when renewables are added to the grid).”

In other climate news, the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee's clean air panel is holding a Sept. 24 hearing on black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant. Witnesses include representatives of the Clean Air Task Force, Corning Inc., the manufacturer of emissions control technologies, and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality.

Water Quality

The Ground Water Protection Council is holding its annual forum Sept. 22-25, in St. Louis with presentations that include a warning from the U.S. Geological Survey's Leonard F. Konikow about the need to address increasing rates of groundwater depletion by reducing demand and/or increasing supply through managed aquifer recharge, desalination and developing alternative sources.

Konikow's findings could make it more difficult for EPA's Superfund office to move forward with a plan to easeits policy of favoring cleanup of contaminated groundwater to meet strict drinking water standards.

Jim Woolford, director of EPA's Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, announced the agency's plans during a Sept. 17 panel discussion at the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) annual meeting, saying the agency is considering a "flexible approach to setting remedial objectives" for contaminated groundwater, though he called it a "very sensitive issue" that will require discussions with states.

Michael Shapiro, EPA principal deputy assistant administrator for water, and other stormwater experts are scheduled to discuss the implications and benefits of upcoming changes to federal stormwater policy during the Sept. 23-26 One Water Leadership Summit in Los Angeles, organized by the U.S. Water Alliance.

While EPA has shown an increasing willingnessto allow municipalities to use green infrastructure projects and integrated stormwater planning efforts to address sewer overflows, the agency's ability to shape other stormwater policy changes is in question after EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation failed to reach agreementon a legally binding deadline for a long-awaited proposed “post-construction” rule to regulate stormwater runoff after construction is complete.

EPA kicks off the first of three public discussions on its recently proposed clarifications to its water quality standards rule with a Sept. 24 public webinar. The agency also plans an Oct. 23 public meeting and a Nov. 14 public webinar.

The proposed rule seeks to address several problemsthe agency faced after environmentalists successfully sued to force the creation of strict federal nutrient limits for Florida waters. The rule could also undercut ongoing litigationseeking to force EPA to craft strict new nutrient limits for states in the Mississippi River Basin -- but only if the agency's planned rule changes are completed before the lawsuit is resolved.

Natural Gas

Natural gas and hydraulic fracturing issues return to focus at the Shale Insight 2013 conference which is slated to begin in Philadelphia Sept. 24. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is slated to give a keynote speech Sept. 26.

A presentation by EPA's Natural Gas Star program will encourage voluntary installation of technologies to control methane emissions from natural gas operations, a hot-button issue that is driving debate on the relative carbon footprint of the fuel.

The conference agenda touts the seminar as providing “information and examples of profit-generating technologies and best practices to reduce methane emissions from new and existing operations,” adding that application of such technologies often has multiple benefits in the reduction of other pollutants. “Participants will also have an opportunity to share their ideas and lessons learned and provide feedback to EPA staff regarding tools that would further the use of methane emission reduction technologies in the Marcellus Shale.”

And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is holding a Sept. 24-26 seminar on “Environmental Review and Compliance for Natural Gas Facilities.” Topics include wetlands and water crossing protections when constructing pipelines and other issues.